Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Infinite love, finite time

I tend to think of love as at least an infinite possibility. It’s not something to guard jealously or ration out, the degree to which I love one person does not reduce the amount of love I might be able to feel for a second person. The bigger issue is the simple, practical point that as a living mammal, I have finite time.

Love, for me, is not simply a concept, it is a lived thing. Love without expression is of limited value. It might create some warm and fuzzy feelings for the person experiencing it, but it does nothing, changes nothing. Love in action is much more powerful. Love in action shows up, spends time, listens, does things with, or for the focus of this feeling.

This is not simply about people either. Love for the landscape takes you into the landscape. Love for the ancestors takes you to ancestral sites. Love for wild things takes you to where you may encounter those wild things. It requires you to know them, hear them, feel for them, help them, be active in your care for them.

All the same is true for people. If love is something we feel privately, stepped back from the world, it is a hollow sort of thing.  Love is better expressed by doing. In some contexts, that might have a sexual aspect to it, but energy, like time, is finite, and shagging people takes both time and energy, and doesn’t make sense in all contexts. Physical affection can of course exist without manifesting lust as well, but that too doesn’t work for all situations, and sometimes it doesn’t go far enough. What we do for each other, what we make for each other and what we make together is key here.

It is possible to hold the idea of love at a distance and without contact for any amount of time. However, what we hold then is the knowledge that we love and the idea that we are loved. Without active expression it can all get a bit speculative and one sided. Letters, phone calls, emails, packages in the post can affirm bonds of affection over great distance, where silence does not.

If love is something you do consciously, day to day, then the choices of how to deploy your time may shift. How much time will you give to people who do not care about you in the slightest? How much time will you give to time-wasters and people who just want to use you? How much of your life will you invest in superficial acquaintances? There is only so much time available to you, in which to love the people, places, creatures that you love. Every hour given to something you do not love, every hour squandered on someone who leaves you feeling empty is an hour you did not get to spend doing something your heart was in.

And while life may involve cycles, afterlives, reincarnation and such possibilities, this moment is only available to us once. Today is unique. Today’s possibilities are unique. Will you grasp them wholeheartedly, or let them be lost in something insignificant and forgettable?

Advertisements

Emotional processing

I have very little idea how other people deal with their emotions. Maybe most people are better at hiding things than I am. Maybe not everyone feels everything quite as keenly as I do. Maybe not everyone gets as exhausted by their own emotions. I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea what’s normal. Sometimes I feel very lost and out of kilter when trying to deal with other people. Sometimes the task of keeping all the feels tucked in, tidy, and out of sight takes all the effort I can muster.

One of the things I’ve found that helps, is having safe spaces in which I can vent, or pour out my emotions without it impacting on anyone else. Sometimes writing will do this. I still occasionally produce the same kind of angsty, self involved poetry I wrote in my teens. Why poetry so often bears the brunt of this kind of thing I am unsure.

I can’t do it with drawing, or painting or crafting. I suppose in part because in those forms, over emotionality translates into mistakes, and sometimes to accidentally stabbing myself with the tools. Sometimes cathartic, sometimes not.

I’ve always found music helpful. As a teen, bashing out Beethoven on the piano kept me sane. That, and drumming, which is a very safe place to leave your rage and frustration. In my twenties, when I was hurting too much to speak I let the violin speak for me, and it helped.

One of the great things about music is that you can do it with other people, pour all the excessive emotions into it and that be ok. No one ever complains about too much emoting with a violin. Folk music is generous with its tragic ballads as well, so public wallowing without obvious self pity can be a thing. If a song says everything you are feeling, then you can say everything you are feeling and no one has to make anything of it. Hiding it in plain sight, if you will.


Trigger anxieties

No one wants to be triggered. No one wants a panic attack, or a flashback, or any of the revisiting of fear and pain a trigger can bring. Alongside this, being triggered can become a fearful thing too, because of how other people react to it. This may well not be an exhaustive list.

Fear of being mocked, ridiculed and humiliated. Special Snowflake. Drama Queen. Attention seeker.

Fear that others will see you as weak, lacking in self control, over-reacting or unreasonable.

Fear of your triggering being used to prove some point – that you are useless, incapable, unreliable, attention seeking, fuss making… and thus shouldn’t be allowed something. As though what happens when you are triggered is a fair measure of you as a person.

Fear that the panic will be a justification to do something to you – remove power, jobs, titles, autonomy, children, opportunities.

Fear that if you talk to someone about having been triggered they will be hostile. Fear that they will react as though you are accusing them of something horrible even if you’re just asking for help. Fear of finding you can’t trust someone you thought you could trust, that they resent being asked to walk on eggshells. It’s hard to talk about this without making people uncomfortable. If you have poor self esteem, fear of making other people uncomfortable may seem more important than not being triggered by them. Fear of damaging relationships may make it tempting not to even say there’s a problem. Fear of the anger of the person who is cross with you because you made a fuss about being triggered.

None of these are hypothetical scenarios. I’ve either seen them happening or experienced them first hand. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding about what triggering means. This is not helped by a mainstream media prone to ridiculing things like trigger warnings. There are a lot of people out there suffering from trauma. We can choose to add to that, or we can choose to try and help each other as best we can.


Sensual, not sexualised

We all get a barrage of information about how we are supposed to be sexually, and what we are supposed to find attractive. I grew up in a hetra-normative environment, and like many queer people my age and older, I had no words for how I am for too long. I grew up with clear messages about what my apparently female body should look like and do, that my clothes could be my consent, and that my clothes should be sexualised and consenting. And that at the same time it wasn’t ok to be a slut.

All the things I’ve been told to find attractive in men – status symbols, big muscles, dominating personalities – I don’t find sexy in anyone. There’s nothing I find more unattractive than the ‘alpha male’ who takes without asking. The person bold enough to ask for what they want? Now, that’s sexy.

At the personal level, there have been plenty of people in the past – some who were lovers, some were not – who wanted to tell me who I was and what it meant. People who wanted to define my identity for me, describe my sexual identity for me, translate my presence on sexual terms for me – and I think this is normal, because mainstream culture is rife with it and it is what we learn to do to each other.

For a while now I’ve been asking what happens if I reject all notions of the male gaze when considering what to wear. The male gaze of my bloke isn’t an issue on this score, he likes me, and he likes me being happy, all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to dress and act a part for him.

I’ve started asking what happens if I have a sexual identity that begins with how I feel, and not with anything coming at me from outside. A sense of physical self rooted in how my body is and what it enjoys and responds to, not what the culture I live in would have me believe I should enjoy and respond to. What immediately struck me as soon as I began exploring this, is that what comes from me is a far more sensual state of being than a sexual one.

Part of this is practical. With the best will in the world, actual shagging can only take up so much of a person’s time. Issues of chaffing and energy and all that. A sensual state of being is much more available, and much more possible in all kinds of contexts. I realise that I want to form a more tactile relationship with the world around me. I want to touch more – plants, stones and soil especially. I recognise how affected I am by sun and wind on skin, by being in water.

For many reasons, I did not have a very tactile relationship with the world as a child. I expect I’m not alone in that. Adults certainly aren’t supposed to paddle in puddles, stroke trees, put their faces against rocks just for the joy of doing it. We are to dress for how it looks, not for how it feels. We are to touch other humans for sexual purposes or not at all. We are allowed to have sensual, non-sexual relationships with our pets.

I go forth to experiment, to find out who I am if I just put the whole notion of sexual identity down for a while and explore sensual identity instead. I’ll report back if there are any interesting discoveries along the way.


Facing a trigger

There is a world of difference between causing anxiety, and triggering. Anxiety is unpleasant, no two ways about it, but a trigger will give a person a flashback to a situation of trauma. It is possible to tackle anxiety by facing up to the sources of fear – and of course the less well founded the fear is, the more effective this is. Sometimes we end up scared of things for no good reason and we have to retrain ourselves to deal with stuff. I’ve done some of this along the way, I’ve found CBT approaches really useful.

The worst thing to do to someone who suffers PTSD is to make them revisit the trauma. Untreated trauma, and trauma revisited can build up layers of additional triggers and problems. Been there too. I don’t have a PTSD diagnosis because the doctor I was seeing when that would have been most useful didn’t want to send me for tests – not because he thought there was no issue, he just didn’t want to send me for tests, and I didn’t have the energy to fight him. Every single professional person I encountered over a period of years – doctors, police, solicitors, social workers and the like, every last one of them required me to retell what had happened. That’s a lot of deep retriggering, often in situations where being distressed put me at a significant disadvantage. I have no idea if being able to name a diagnosis would have helped.

Triggering happens because something is too associated with the original trauma, and brings it all back. This is why trigger warnings matter – on obvious things like child abuse, torture, extreme cruelty and rape it is worth warning people because anyone who has experienced that will suffer enormously if they come upon it unprepared. This isn’t like pushing past fear of going outside to go outside – because in that example, you go outside and you probably don’t face a terrible thing. Being triggered means facing a terrible thing. So on the whole, facing down a trigger is not the ideal way to deal with it.

The further removed the trigger is from the trauma, the more chance you have of taking it out. You need to stack up a lot of time feeling safe and secure first. There is no real scope for dealing with triggers while you’re still in a dangerous situation. I’ve written before about how I have overcome being panicked by post. I’ve got that down to just a bit anxious, now. The reason I had become so panicked by post, was that terrifying things came in envelopes for some years. Many of those terrifying things came from my solicitors, and every envelope represented a bill that would cripple me financially for good measure. Between this and the deliberate retriggering described above, I’ve been totally unable to deal with most people in a professional capacity for some years now.

Yesterday I went to see a solicitor about making a will. The same family solicitors company responsible for all that letter sending. I let a professional person ask questions about my life. But, because it was a will, we didn’t get into the stuff I never want to have to talk about again. And I knew upfront what it would cost. The appointment letter, when it came in the post, made me feel bodily sick, but I weathered it. I’ve kept reminding myself that I’m in charge of this process. Perhaps next year I will find the means to go and talk to a doctor – and it will be a different doctor – about things that are wrong with me.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel like I can do this. Years of kindness and support on the domestic front. Years of rebuilding my sense of self. It is possible to challenge a trigger, but it is not something to rush towards. Only the person dealing with the trigger can say when it might be worth having a go.


Privilege and Pain

How do we make sense of each other’s pain? If someone is suffering, all we know is what we can see, what we’ve experienced and what we imagine. We guess, we judge, we decide whether to take them seriously or not. We call for an ambulance, or we tell them not to make a fuss.

I’ve seen rather too many statistics say that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s. I’ve also seen plenty to suggest that fat people in pain are taken less seriously than thin people. Black people may also find it harder to get taken seriously than white people. When it comes to the business of other people’s pain, we bring our prejudices to the table and judge accordingly. People who are wealthy and deemed important will have the slightest health issue jumped on – perhaps because they can pay people to do just that. The rest of us will have to make our case, and may be met with suspicion and disbelief.

As a child I was told I had a very low pain threshold. The implication was that I made too much fuss about things that hurt me – cuts, bruises, splinters etc. As an adult dealing with children, I’ve seen far greater reactions over far less. Not least because children have little to compare a hurt to, and are far more shocked by it. Often it’s the shock they most need you to help them with. There’s a balance to strike between helping a child keep their experiences in perspective, and comforting them.

Into adult life, it is often the people with least experience of pain who make the most fuss about it. The people for whom pain is not normal, are the people most keen to avoid it. I recall being told that a person just couldn’t go for a run unprepared, they would hurt themselves. Well yes, they might make their muscles sore, certainly. I don’t run often, because the jolting hurts my body too much, but when I’ve had a go, I’ve been in pain before I started. It must make it hard for an observer to make sense of me. I walk for transport, I do long walks, I dance when I can – it doesn’t mean I don’t hurt, it’s just that I choose not to be ruled by that hurt.

There are many conditions that mean living with pain. You choose how much you can do and what you can take, or what you’re obliged to take in order to work.  With the safety net ever harder to access, people who don’t know you may make superficial judgements about your pain and thus your right to time to rest and heal. Some things can be recovered from if people are allowed to rest and heal. Some things are more readily managed without piling on the economic pressure. The question now isn’t whether you should work, it’s whether you can. A person who is in constant physical pain can indeed work. I do so. I don’t think anyone should be obliged to, though.

I don’t look like I’m in pain. I’m not pulling dramatic faces or making sad noises, I don’t limp or have a sling, I only use a stick for longer walks over more challenging terrain. And like a great many other people in similar circumstances, I can’t prove to anyone how much my body hurts. This means we are easy to dismiss. If we’re inconvenient, we can be ignored. If we can’t do something we can be told off for not trying, not pulling our weight. It is really easy to deny, ignore and denigrate someone whose pain does not manifest in ways you can easily observe.

And then there are the people who feel I should deal with my pain in the manner of their prescribing. If I don’t, I’m not taking it seriously, not trying hard enough. Or I was lying in the first place. It can be frustrating to say the least, and I don’t have to take as much of this as some people will. As far as I can see, there’s a definite parallel between who gets to have their pain taken seriously, and who has other kinds of privileges going on. It all seems to fall out along the same lines, and that stands some thinking about.


When People are Troublesome

Here’s a very useful line of thought which I got from Alain du Botton. It goes like this. When small babies are grumpy, shouty or otherwise horrible, we check their nappies, burp them, see if they need to sleep, or we feed them. We wonder if they are teething. More often than not, what’s wrong can be put right. When adults are inexplicably funny with us, we infer meaning, and we get unhappy too and that seldom fixes anything.

Low blood sugar, insufficient sleep, trapped wind, and countless other simple body issues affect the moods of adults, too. On top of that we have all our baggage to lug about as well. For some time now, I’ve tried to factor this in when dealing with people. Sometimes I can just go for simple physical interventions to see if it helps, sometimes I just imagine that the reason a person is odd isn’t about me, but about them. At the very least, it helps me not to make worse an already awkward situation.

I’ve started applying it to myself as well. If I know I’m being crappy and short tempered, I check through for obvious physical things, and try things that might alleviate problems. If I know there’s a problem with me – for example if I’m in a lot of pain – I say so, in the hopes that the people around me will know not to take me too personally. I tell the people who live with me if I’m bleeding, or I think I’m pre-menstrual, so they know what’s going on. Hopefully, this helps. It certainly helps me take better care of me.

I think part of the problem is that we’ve inherited a culture that thinks body things are vulgar and not to be mentioned. We can’t tell people we’re menstruating! Or constipated! The horror! Instead we are to present a stiff upper lip and pretend everything is fine. Of course this means a lot of stuff comes out sideways. There’s nothing like trying to pretend you don’t feel awful for making a person over react to small things gone awry.

If we’re allowed to be honest about body issues, we can be kinder to each other. We can understand each other better and not build up layers of overthinking and anxiety around our interactions. If we assume that as grown up people we are basically big babies, we may be better able to recognise when someone just needs a pat on the back.


The language of Madness

I’ve been conscious for a while now that abelist language is a thing, and that how we talk about various forms of disability, and how we use it as metaphor needs keeping an eye on. As a person with mental health issues, how should I talk about madness?

It is important to me to talk about it. I don’t feel at ease with more clinical language, I want to talk experientially and about feelings. I think if I want to describe myself as having been ‘bat shit crazy’ then that’s ok. There’s issues about reclaiming words and undermining them as insults.

It’s difficult at the moment because cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and there seem to be a lot of people who would rather, for example, contrive complex conspiracy theories about how someone has made a hurricane happen rather than deal with the issue of climate change. What do we call that aside from madness? In psychological terms, the line between sane and not sane is all about functionality. I see so many people who are so in denial about environmental issues, that they are not functional. It might even be technically accurate to refer to this as insanity.

We’re collectively quick in the wake of a mass killing to talk about the killer’s mental health problems (when we’re talking about a white guy). The major problem with this is that it can lead to the impression that mentally ill people are dangerous. In practice, most of us pose no risk to anyone but ourselves. The trouble is that not all forms of madness are created equally.

I’m conscious that there are many Pagan practices which, in their ecstatic and dramatic extremes, take a person out of consensus reality and into something the consensus considers insane – hearing and seeing that which others do not, knowing things from this experience… conversations about shamanism especially, and madness have been going on for some time.

I’m also conscious of the madness of creativity. Again, it’s an ecstatic form, wild, deranged, visionary, extreme, profoundly dysfunctional and potentially life wrecking, but also able to think otherwise unthinkable things and bring beauty into the world. The risk of talking about this in terms of madness is that we romanticise and make attractive the kinds of experiences that can also kill people.

Along the way I’ve known a number of people whose relationship with reality has, by anyone’s standard, broken down dramatically at some point. In some cultures, this would have made them holy, important, their experiences re-framed as something significant to their community. Even in Christian history we see space, historically, for the holy fool, the mad mystic. When did we collectively decide that madness was a shameful thing that should be locked away, hidden from sight and never spoken of? And more recently, medicated out of sight? I know that the vast majority of low level mental health issues – depression and anxiety – are caused by our workplaces and other stressors like poverty and insecurity. We are to tidy it up and hide it away and not deal with the sick systems creating it.

Madness takes many forms. Some of its forms are so hideous and destructive that there’s nothing we can currently do except institutionalise the sufferers. Some years ago I knew someone who worked in that kind of environment. We’re still hiding the worst of it under the social rug, and most of us have no idea what goes on. Changing what we call it can just be a new way of hiding it from ourselves.

I can’t find any easy edges around when and how we should be talking about madness, and when we shouldn’t use that kind of language, because so much of what I see around me is itself insane. I think we need to be more willing to talk about the madness inherent in the system. Madness is not just something that happens to you, it can be the direct consequence of a deliberate choice not to deal with reality. Say and for example, by being in denial about what all the violent weather might possibly mean.


Jumping through hoops

Trigger warnings: exploring abuse.

Sometimes the goals just keep moving, always staying that bit ahead of you so that you can never make the grade. No matter how hard you try, how good you are, how well you do the things you were told to do, the goal shifts with you and you never reach it.

I think back to playground games, and the desperate, uncool kid I was, trying to be good enough. It doesn’t matter how often you’re useful in that context, how often you let them do the things they want to do, you never earn a place as a cool kid. There are plenty of adults still playing this game, in workplaces, in families, in social groups. Hurt yourself for our amusement and there may be a place for you. Now demean yourself for us. Now grovel.

At least with the moving goalpost game you can see the goal, and you can watch it move, and sooner or later you can spot this and recognise it for what it is. The unwinnable game is just that, the only way to win it is to quit, and that’s a simple enough lesson to learn. Anyone trapped into playing it stands a chance of getting themselves out again.

The invisible hoop game is much, much worse. I guess there’s nothing really wrong with situations that ask us to jump through hoops – that’s the school system in a nutshell. It’s part of how employment works. Do the things, get the rewards. Sticks and carrots all the way. However, the invisible hoop game doesn’t let you know what you have to do. There will be hoops, and you are expected to jump through them, but with no information as to where those hoops are or what they require.

Generally speaking, a person in an invisible hoop game will find out what the score is only when they have failed to jump through a hoop. They have failed to magically know what was wanted of them. They were not psychic, they did not predict the future. They will be punished for having failed to jump through the right hoop at the right moment.

This happens a lot in abusive relationships. Of course you were supposed to know that today they wanted to sleep in/get up an hour early/have breakfast bought to them in bed. It is your fault for not packing the thing they wanted, not ordering the thing they’d run out of, not mending the thing you did not know was broken. You are too noisy, too quiet, too sociable, too morose, too happy, too sad. You are making them feel something you weren’t supposed to make them feel. And now they are angry. For some people (more often than not, it happens to women) this is where the physical violence starts. You didn’t jump through the invisible hoop, and that makes it ok to hurt you. Or it may be that you are shouted at, told off, humiliated or ridiculed instead.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the physical consequences. The psychological consequences run much deeper. For some people, this will be a whole life issue as a consequence of childhood abuse. Some of us are trained to it later. If you have played the invisible hoop game, you can never entirely relax. You’ll always be looking for the invisible hoops. In all situations, with everyone, a part of your mind is watching out for clues that there’s a hoop with your name on it. A part of your mind is watching for the danger signs that you didn’t jump when you should have done. Underneath all of this, lingers the suspicion that any decent, normal person would be able to see these hoops and jump through them. You can’t, and you think that’s because you are crap, careless and not willing to try hard enough. Rather than running away, you blame yourself, and try harder.

Time in safe spaces can reduce the fear. It can get easier not to be looking for hoops all the time. I don’t know if it ever entirely goes away.


The menoporpoise

It isn’t a pause. Nothing has stopped, and the ‘pause’ bit technically refers to stopping bleeding, which may be years away for me.

Peri-menopausal is an awkward mouthful of a term, it’s not something I can live inside. It does nothing for me.

So far, the material I’ve found has just flagged up all the bad bits. There’s nothing I can work with. Nothing I feel empowered or encouraged by. I suspect this is because our culture values youth and sexual fertility in women, and not age or wisdom.

As a practical point, my skin now takes offence at everything, including my own sweat. I seem to spend a lot of time slinking off to the bathroom to wash afflicted regions. Water is fine. This leads me to the logical conclusion that I am trying to transform into an aquatic mammal, and this in turn brings me very naturally to the menoporpoise.

I see the menoporpoise as friendly and benevolent, but not always convenient. It means well, but it is in essence a large aquatic mammal trying to swim about inside my life, and sometimes that’s going to be complicated. We will have to learn to get along, the menoporpoise and I.

Our lives and experiences are informed and shaped by the language we use and the stories we tell. How we name things, how we talk of them is important stuff. For easily a year now, my body has been changing. I don’t want the cultural narratives of menopause. But perhaps I can work with a menoporpoise and change into something new.